Tuesday, January 28, 2020

In Memoriam: A Superstar and a Supporting Player

All of Los Angeles and (I suspect) all of the world now mourn the loss of the brilliant, talented, unpredictable Kobe Bryant. More than simply a retired athlete, he was clearly a force of nature, bent on exploring all facets of life-in-the-big-city to the extent of his considerable powers. As movie buffs know, Kobe was even an Oscar winner, for the 2017 animated short called Dear Basketball. It’s a sweet (and beautifully hand-drawn) rendering of Bryant’s passion for the sport, one that recognizes in a simple but heartfelt way both the joys of the game and the limitations of the human body. It’s hard to dwell on the loss of such a man, and devastating to think of the thirteen-year-old daughter (yes, another basketball talent) who died with him, on the way to a practice.

But I’m also feeling somber because of the loss of someone much older and much less famous than Kobe Bryant. Marsha Kramer never won a major award, but she was a theatre professional from young adulthood until her death last week at the age of 74. Obituaries particularly noted her 14 appearances on TV’s Modern Family. She had a recurring role on Frasier, and appeared on such classic shows as Touched by an Angel, Cheers, Malcolm in the Middle, and Newhart. In addition, there were small parts in movies like 2013’s The Great Gatsby. By far her biggest credit, though, was as Wendy Darling, soaring off to Neverland in Sandy Duncan’s famous Broadway revival of Peter Pan.

I knew Marsha Kramer before all of that, when we were both still in high school. UCLA was offering a special six-week theatre workshop for stage-struck teenagers: kids came from all over SoCal to take part in acting exercises and perform in one-act plays for an invited audience. It was an interesting group. Some of us had family showbiz connections (like Lee J. Cobb’s pretty daughter, Julie), but most of us didn’t. Some were doing this for fun, and others were so serious about acting careers that they already had agents and stage names. Naturally we all kept an eye out for the future stars in our ranks. As was usual with high school drama kids, girls far out-numbered boys and had a far harder time getting cast in showy roles. There was one young man we all regarded as particularly talented and charismatic, and we anticipated seeing his name (either his real name or his chosen stage moniker) in lights. Never happened. But a very nice fellow named Richard Dreyfuss, who had never especially impressed me with his acting chops, has had a long, storied career, climaxing with a Best Actor Oscar for The Goodbye Girl (yes, he beat out Richard Burton in Equus).

As for Marsha Kramer, the pride of the Westchester High School drama department, she was small, cute, poised, and had a lovely singing voice. So it wasn’t surprising that she nabbed a really good juvenile role at UCLA. Though I didn’t think much then about her future prospects, she was extremely likable, and years later I got a big kick out of her Peter Pan appearance. My favorite memory: when I saw the show circa 1982 at L.A.s Pantages Theatre, I overheard two women in the lobby marveling at the fact that the adorable little Wendy flying around the stage was actually 28 years old. The joke for me is that they were almost 10 years off: Marsha was probably 37 at the time, slightly older than Sandy Duncan. But no, I didn’t spill the beans.

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